At The Start Of The Grand Trunk Road: A 'City That Yells At You' : The Two-Way Calcutta, the "city that yells at you." First in a series of posts from reporters traveling the Grand Trunk Road.
NPR logo At The Start Of The Grand Trunk Road: A 'City That Yells At You'

At The Start Of The Grand Trunk Road: A 'City That Yells At You'

Near the beginning of the route, one of many Hindu shrines. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

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Near the beginning of the route, one of many Hindu shrines. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR)

We wrote earlier about the series of stories coming up this spring on Morning Edition. NPR correspondents and producers are heading out on the Grand Trunk Road that arcs across South Asia from the Bay of Bengal to the Hindu Kush.

One focus of the series: The young people of India and Pakistan. As Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep says, they face "vast opportunities and vast problems."

Members of the reporting team will be sending us occasional notes from the road about what life is like there. Here's the first:

By Philip Reeves

We do not make an auspicious start. Our plane lands, the doors open. We — and by that, I mean me and NPR producer Nishant Dahiya — are immediately engulfed by a wave of hot, wet air. Kolkata (or Calcutta as many still call it) is in the grip of a heat wave. There's an article about this in the Times of India. "Many people fell unconscious on the streets of the city", reports the opening paragraph.

Everywhere, a sign. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

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Everywhere, a sign. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR)

It's hard to imagine anyone being unconscious for very long in Kolkata. The city yells at you from every corner. It yells at you along the road that sweeps into town, from the massive billboards, urging you to buy luxury apartments, suits, cellphones, and anti-dandruff treatments.

It yells from you from the dank weed-choked walls of the back alleys, festooned with the red hammer and sickle insignia of the ruling (but not very) Communist party who run West Bengal - the state of which this city is the capital.

It yells at you from the movie posters crowded with spectacularly evil-looking mustached villains — the sort of men the British, when they ruled India from this city, would have certainly called Bounders, and probably even Rotters.

The traffic yells at you — or rather, as Indians put it, "horns" at you. There's a campaign further up the Grand Trunk Road in India's capital, New Delhi, to stop cars constantly blowing on their horns. That would never work in this flamboyant, defiant city.

The place thrives on noise.

Horn use is encouraged. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

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Horn use is encouraged. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR)

Honk if you can read this. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR) hide caption

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Honk if you can read this. (Nishant Dahiya/NPR)

Rarely does a day pass without a demonstration in Kolkata. Today's no different. We drive into a throng of angry young men, demanding compensation for the 42 people who perished last month in a very sad, and under-reported, fire in an apartment block just off one of the Kolkata's most fashionable, and historic streets — Park Street.

Indians love an argument. I acknowledge that sounds like a simple-minded stereotype. But I have yet to meet an Indian who disputes this.

And nowhere does it hold more true than in Kolkata.

They will argue round-the-clock, at full volume. It's not personal. They love it when you argue back. In fact, they expect it. You part as friends.

So I suppose I should have expected to run into an argument when Nishant and I set out to discover the start of the Grand Trunk Road in Kolkata. We were looking for the point at which the road began after it was refurbished by the British during the 19th Century.

Every time we stopped to ask the local residents, a long, joyful argument ensued.

We did eventually locate what we think is the starting point, and commenced our journey. We were not disappointed.

Here are some of the things you can do,just in the first two miles of the Grand Trunk Road.

— Eat a hearty breakfast for eight cents.
— Buy a plump, wriggling fish from the River Ganges.
— Consult an astrologer.
— Read a newspaper pasted to the wall.
— Enroll as a Communist.
— Wash in a drain.
— Have your eyes, ears, teeth and sexual organs checked for defects.
— Worship a God of your choice.
— Attend a meeting of "The Cleanliness and Beautiousness Society."
— Get your face bleached.
— Buy a toupee.
— Send an e-mail to New York.
— Learn to dance.

We're off.